My favourite painting: Fiona Bruce

'Caravaggio - what a guy!'

David Victorious over Goliath, about 1600, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610), 431⁄2in by 36in, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Bridgeman Images.

Fiona Bruce says:
‘Caravaggio—what a guy! He swaggered around Renaissance Italy gambling, womanising, drinking and brawling. If he wasn’t already in trouble, he went looking for it. After he committed murder and was badly attacked himself, he become a nervous wreck, always on the run and in constant fear for his life; he died, perhaps inevitably, in mysterious circumstances. But although his private life was chaotic, his painting was a thing of sublime beauty. Here, David’s face alone would be enough to merit greatness, his profile in shadow heart-breakingly tender as he braces his left knee on the body of Goliath’

Fiona Bruce is a journalist, newsreader and the presenter of the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow and Fake or Fortune?

John McEwen comments:
Caravaggio derived his name from the town his family escaped to from a plague in Milan. As a 13-year-old orphan, he returned to Milan to begin a four-year apprenticeship with Simone Peterzano, a former pupil of Titian. He learned to paint in oils directly from the subject in the Venetian style and local Lombard painters may have formed his taste for simplicity and naturalistic detail derived from Germanic art, at odds with the optical pretensions and humanist secularity of roman Mannerism.

Recommended videos for you

Caravaggio arrived in rome, apparently penniless, in 1592 and found work with the Pope’s favourite artist, giuseppe Cesari. It was fortuitous that his life coincided with the Catholic Church’s demand for more stringent, doctrinal art to counter the Protestant reformation. His simple and dramatic style translated Catholic beliefs in the stark and easily understood manner ideally, if sometimes shockingly, well-suited to Counter-Reformation requirements. His fame grew after his first public commissions in 1600.

He made three paintings of David and Goliath. This is the earliest, painted for the most important of his initial roman patrons, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte. Not long after it was finished, it was sent to Spain, where it had a considerable artistic influence. It conforms to the need for scriptural accuracy boldly stated, illustrating the verse in which Goliath’s conqueror, the Israelite boy David, took the felled giant Philistine’s sword ‘and slew him, and cut off his head therewith’ (I Samuel, 17.51). It can equally be seen as a metaphor of the renewed Church militant. Its grisly relevance to events today is all too apparent.

This article was first published in Country Life, February 11, 2015
More from the My Favourite Painting Series